British Paganism is Dying. Why?

A few years ago, I gave a talk to the OBOD Summer Gathering about the role of young people in Druidry. I began by pointing out that the average lifespan for an adult during the Iron Age was about 30 years – even if the sky-high rates of infant mortality were excluded. Today, we tend to think of elderhood as something reserved for those over 65; but to our ancestors, anyone over 30 would have been looked upon as an invaluable source of wisdom and experience. To accentuate the point, I invited the audience to stand up, and then asked all those over 35 to sit down again. If we were Iron Age druids, the majority of those seated, I explained, would be dead. Although the point I was making about the relativity of youth and eldership is an important one, this little experiment – getting anybody over 35 to sit down – revealed something else. Of a room full of 150 people, only about 9 were left standing. If this sample is taken to be indicative of the Order as a whole, that means only around 6% of OBOD’s members are aged between 16 and 35. By contrast, this age bracket covers some 26.4% of the UK’s general population.

This lack of young people at OBOD gatherings made manifest something that had been lingering in the back of my mind for some time; something that had previously only been whispered over campfires, on kitchen tables, late at night when the wine was flowing. Not only are few younger people coming to OBOD events, but some of my friends report that there seem to be fewer people of all ages taking an active role in organising events and rituals. While people are still coming to big public rituals at seasonal festivals, they are less and less inclined to volunteer to organise them, or to take on regular commitments of any kind. Moots are shrinking, it’s harder to fill up workshops, and getting enough volunteers to set up and run camps and gatherings is a struggle. For a long time, I suspected that this was confined to OBOD – Druidry, after all, has a powerful association with old white men with old white beards – but having spoken to friends of mine involved in other traditions, it appears to be more widespread, if not as extreme in other parts of the community. I’ve been told that the number of registered members of the Pagan Federation has gone down for the first time. At the Harvest Moon Conference in 2016, Melissa Harrington confessed that she felt that this decline in active participation was indicative of Paganism “going underground” again. Most of the Pagan Federation events I’ve been to recently have shown a similar demographic spread to OBOD ones.

All this is developing in the context of our experience of the most recent UK census in 2011. Ronald Hutton calculated in Triumph of the Moonpublished in the mid-ninetiesthat the number of initiated Pagans was around 17,000 – 20,000, with a larger number of “active engagers” of about 120,000; people who may revere Pagan gods, practice magic, and mark seasonal festivals, but are not initiated into any Pagan group. When the 2001 census recorded some 44,000 Pagans across Scotland, England, and Wales, this figure attracted considerable press attention, both positive and negative. Hutton speculated that if 44,000 people were sufficiently invested to identify themselves as Pagan on a censusdouble his figure in Triumphthe number of more loosely affiliated “active engagers” could have doubled too; creating a figure of 250,000 people.

In advance of the 2011 census, major Pagan organisations in Britain led the Pagan-dash campaign, encouraging people to identify themselves as Pagan on the census. However, the number who reported themselves as “Pagan” increased to only 56,620 peopleand depending upon how broadly one defines “Paganism,” the number of those identifying as a member of a Pagan or esoteric tradition increased to around 80,000 people. As Vivienne Crowley pointed out, this indicates that the meteoric growth of the 1990s had slowed. My concern is that the declining number of young participants in the Pagan community in Britain, and the general diminution of those taking an active role in the community as a whole, indicates that that growth has stalled. British Paganismas a subculture and as a movementis in trouble.

The clickbait-y title of the piecechosen to encourage you to read what I have to say (sorry)is doubtless an exaggeration. As such, I’ll need to make a couple of caveats. The problem I mention above is not some catastrophic dissolution of the social relations from which the Pagan Movement in Britain is forged; there is no imminent disaster, we’re not all in schism or at each other’s throats. The fact that this crisis is a slow crisis, I suggest, is what makes it so easy to ignore. But communities are not just vulnerable to feuds and disruption; time itself is an enemy. It is said that we are all dying, one day at a time—but communities have ways of warding off the parabolic curve toward the grave, by recruiting new members from new generations. If none of these ways are followed, however, then a community will necessarily disappear, subjected to the remorseless attrition of the passing of years. The death of the Pagan Movement is some way off; my aim here is not to pronounce its imminent demise, but rather to draw attention to a set of problems that, if unaddressed, will necessarily lead to the movement dying away.

I’d also stress that the scope of my observations above is necessarily quite limited. This situation applies solely to British Paganisms, and not to those of other countries. On a recent trip to Australia, for example, I witnessed a quite different realityin which a great many of people my own age are getting involved in and leading Pagan traditions. In European countries, I know, the demography is similarly diverse. Are there thriving covens and groves, recruiting many members under 30, out there in the UK somewhere, that I have yet to meet? Very possibly. If they do exist, I’d very much like to meet them; it’d be fascinating to learn how they’ve managed to buck the trend that I’ve observed in my own experience of the British Pagan Movement.

I also think it’s important to point out that the decline in British Paganism does not mean in the slightest that magical practice, animistic beliefs and ritual, British folkways, or the celebration of the wild and mythic heritage of these islands as a whole is under threat. Indeed, I would suggest to the contrary; that all these cultural practices are very much alive, and growing, amongst the younger generations as anywhereindeed, witchy stuff, hippy vibes, eco-activism, and nature mysticism are more on trend than ever. Which makes it all the more bizarre, to my mind, that existing British Orders, Traditions, and Camps are not riding the wave of the neo-folk, authenticity-seeking, sustainability-conscious zeitgeist. Hutton’s distinction between initiated Pagans and “active engagers” is very useful hereit is important to stress that becoming an initiate of a mystery school, and actively engaging in a broader cultural tradition of enchantment do not necessarily relate to one another. They are two rather different things.

What is in decline, then, is something quite specificthe Pagan Movement; a collection of organisations, publications, ceremonial genres, training courses. That collection is no longer feeding the appetite of the general public for the magical. That appetite has not gone away; indeed, it has potentially increasedso we must ask ourselves what has changed.

Dealing with some existing explanations

When I’ve raised this issue in the past, some of those I’ve spoken to tend to comment upon it in a number of ways. Firstly, they tend to argue that young people are just inherently less interested in spiritualitybeing more concerned with enjoying themselves, having children, or workingand that they will find Druidry when they become more spiritually-inclined as they get older. Secondly, the argument is made that there are probably many younger druids, but they just don’t come to the existing selection of events. Finally, some druids argue that most people are fundamentally ignorant and insensitive to the subtle forces and immanent power of wild places. Each of these commentaries serves to minimise the problem; the assumption being that the absence of younger people will resolve itself in time. With regard to the dip in the number of people prepared to take on organisational responsibilities, people tend to simply shake their heads, and mutter darkly about adverse economic conditions. I’ll deal with each of these responses in turn.

The suggestion that young people are necessarily less spiritual is one that doesn’t reflect my own experience, nor does it chime with the history of Paganism as a movement. I routinely meet people my own age with a deep and profound engagement with religious and spiritual practicebut they’re just normally involved other organisationssuch as Western Buddhist Orders, the Brahma Kumaris, or even liberal churchesover Pagan ones. As I’ve already pointed out, much of what Paganism is all about is very popular amongst young adults today. This reflects a long and passionate history of youthful involvement with magical and mystery traditions; the 1990s “Teen Witch” phenomenon demonstrated an enthusiastic appetite for enchantment amongst teenagers, and as Helen Berger and Doug Ezzy eloquently point out, the derisory views of this phenomenon by more experienced practitioners was largely ill-founded. As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, if you go far back, pretty much all the Druids and priests of pre-Christian times would have been in their 20s. And although many people will get more inclined to involve themselves in spiritual practice as they get older, the same could be said in the reverseit is a well known phenomenon for spiritual ardour to cool with age.

The more moderate claimthat young Pagans are out there, but they aren’t coming to events or undertaking coursesis more plausible. As I’ve said, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest a large population of “active engagers” in Pagan materialeven if they aren’t accessing that material through active participation in the community itself. But that begs a further question: why are British Pagan community leaders not organising events and courses that better cater to the majority of people? What might resources of this kind look like? The fact that the majority of those interested in “Pagan” themes in Britain aren’t being catered to by what’s already on offer within our community is not a reason for complacency; if anything, it should be the opposite. I would suggest that we’re simply doing as we’ve always done, even though it clearly isn’t working in the way that it once did.

The final claimthat most people simply don’t appreciate what the Pagan movement has to offeris, I think, the reason for this complacency about the narrow appeal of our movement in Britain. For much of the 20th century, Pagans have been viewed with thinly-veiled hostility by British society at large, with most of our valuesfrom respect for nature to equality for women, from sexual liberation to a valorisation of the imaginationbeing decidedly countercultural in nature. This had direct consequences; in custody battles, in dealings with the police, in employment and at home. This experiencepart of living memory for most Pagans todayhas reinforced the perception that the rest of society simply “doesn’t get” what we’re all about.

But the fact is that British society and its values have changed dramatically since the 1980s. Much of what once made Paganism radical is now widely accepted by those of all religions and none. It is no longer particularly progressive to believe in the central importance of the natural world, or in basic equality for all. Though these values are under attack from corporations and far-right populist movements, the very fact that the opposition to these values has crystallised at this moment demonstrates the broadening of their appeal. People would have no need of the gurning outrages of Nigel Farage and Katy Hopkins if everyone still took their regressive views as common sense, as they once did. While British Pagan organisations have concentrated on mainstreaming, it has escaped the notice of many of us that the mainstream is now increasingly flowing in our direction. We are winning the argument.

And yet, rather than harness this tectonic shift in the soul of Britain, some Pagans have remained pretty insular in their thinking. The recent memory of bigotry shown toward our community has become a shield for other, less edifying attitudes. Like members of most subcultures, it’s tempting for Pagans to look down on those outside of our small community, characterising the general public as mindless, uncritical “sheeple” or “muggles,” enslaved to societal expectations. We are all familiar with the extreme form this attitude can take; the British Pagan Community has its fair share of what an American friend of mine referred to as “Grand High Poobahs.” But I would suggest that we all need to be vigilant against this tendency within ourselvesmyself included. In the past few years, I have met so many people who shared identical values to those of contemporary British Pagans. Though lapsing into a bit of mild snobbery is a ubiquitous trait in British society, I suggest that it has led us initiated Pagans into underestimating the current reach and appeal of the things we care about most. As such, we’ve become vulnerable to a sort of Religious Hipsterismtreating our religion less as a vision of a better world, and more as a mode of personal distinction that lifts us upward in the unending churn of the class system.

To return to Hutton’s formulation, then, it appears the problem is not the decline of all cultural practices that can be connected to the Pagan revival. Rather it is a disjuncture between the orders, traditions, newsletters, groups, literatures, and organisations that make up the “Pagan Movement”and a broader audience of “active engagers” that is larger than ever. But how has this rift emerged? I suggest that, of the comments I’ve mentioned so far, the one that sets us on the path to understanding this process is the lastthose grim reflections upon economic adversity, and its impact on people’s ability to engage in the time-consuming task of organising and volunteering for community activities.

The Political Economy of Paganism

In one of my first essays on Gods and Radicals, I explored the political economy of contemporary Paganism. There I argued that Paganism is quite unlike more established religions, in that the prevailing economic structure is not a church, or a monastic order, or an ashrambut rather a fandom. It is a group of avid enthusiasts, who consume content produced by a smaller circle of creators, who distribute their content through an open marketwith that content being celebrated through events organised by enthusiast-volunteers. My aim in producing this description was to provide the most accurate picture of how goods, services, labour and authority circulate in our community. The point is not that individual British Pagan authors, workshop leaders, diviners, and shopkeepers are greedy capitalists. In fact, all the creators on the British scene that I have met are generous and altruistic, with spiritual rather than profit-motives. The point is that the system in which they all work is a market-oriented one. And as it lives by the market, I suggest, so our community is now dying by it.

Within the British Pagan Community, two kinds of organisation played a key role: the Independent Small Business and the Unincorporated Association. Mind Body Spirit Shops and Bookshops are all small businesses; institutions that rely upon commerce, but provide a hub for existing initiates, and, crucially, allow new seekers a means of finding their way into the community. Through the gateway represented by the MBS Shop, the seeker would find their way into a network of covens, orders, groves, moots, ceremonies, and camps. All of these are forms of Unincorporated Associations, run by volunteers, usually at costif any money changes hands at all. The key feature to both these types of organisationSmall Private Companies and Unincorporated Associationsis that they’re both very vulnerable to fluctuations in the wider market.

The fate of the MBS Bookshop makes this vulnerability plain. Like all small, independent shops, a great many pagan or MBS bookshops have been forced to close, afflicted by economic instability in the wake of the Great Recession, rising business rates, andmost importantlyout-competed by internet retailers. The Internet has now largely replaced the bookshop as the first place seekers go to find out about our traditions. Pagans were early-adopters of the Internet, and the web provided an invaluable means for Pagan groups to meet and work with one another. But the Internet itself has transformed drastically since the 1990s. Web design, search-engine optimisation, and e-marketing have become tremendously advanced, funded by vast amounts of corporate capital. In the crowded marketplace of online content, it’s easy for your brand to be drowned out unless you can successfully deploy a rich supply of fresh, original content, distributed adroitly through social mediamuch of which consumers expect for free. British Pagan organisations have been slow to adapt to this environment; and while being slightly dated and tatty adds to the charm of an independent bookshop, a website that is poorly designed or has late 90s coding won’t look any better for it. To those of us who have grown up with the internet, an old-fashioned website is downright off-putting.

A further problem from a commercial standpoint is the fact that Paganism’s “brand” has suffered in recent years. As John Halstead has pointed out, we’ve gone from being perceived as a threat, to being seen as a joke. Although efforts to mainstream the Pagan movement have brought undoubted benefits, it has nonetheless had the unintended side-effect of removing some of the edgy charisma that was once part of the movement’s appeal. This effect has been compounded by the fact the British Pagans who most assiduously court publicity are amongst the most eccentric, with the lowest production values. Those of us who are less inclined to dress up crushed velvet, or give ourselves grand titles exceeding our actual accomplishments have ended up avoiding the limelight entirely. Though understandable, this reaction has meant that the British public now have a mental image of Paganism that amounts to little more than bad cosplay at the Summer Solstice.

If we turn away from the shop front, towards the community meeting in the function room upstairs, we run into a different set of issuesbut ones that can nonetheless be traced back to market forces. The Pagan Community is reliant upon the voluntary labour of enthusiasts, as the events rarely collect enough cash to pay the going rate for the labour involved. During the 1990s, when many camps and moots were being set up, this was not a problembenefits and wages were generous enough to allow people copious spare time that they could devote towards voluntary activities. But after decades of cuts in state finances and stagnant wages, paired with a rising cost of living, people across the country are struggling to make ends meet, and are working longer hours. With their increasingly limited time off, they now need to focus upon domestic labour, spending time with their loved ones, and on recreationactivities that “recharge the batteries,” allowing them to continue working.

Voluntary labour and extra-curricular learning have both suffered, as people no longer have the time or energy to spare to engage in them. Unfortunately, these are precisely the two types of activity upon which the Pagan community was built in the mid-20th century. As the amount of spare time available has collapsed, so have the number of people prepared who can find the time to become initiated, learn the mysteries, and then enact them for others for free. The only exception are those who have already secured sufficient assets so that they no longer need to work for a living; that is, retired people.

In short, the same reason lies behind the aging of British Paganism, and the decline in the number of active initiates prepared to run events. The Pagan Movement was constructed, quite unintentionally, as a network of commercial relations, that in turn stimulated a thriving voluntary scene, all gathered around a common genre of writing and ritual. But as market conditions have changed in the past few decades, this delicate arrangement has been yanked out of alignment. The Movement has not remained competitive in the crowded marketplace of online content, and has not made the most of its distinctive brand. Given that people are more pressed for time and money than ever, fewer young, working people are attracted to it, and there are no longer enough volunteers available to run its events.

Beyond Commerce, beyond work: The way forward

Although I have taken pains to reveal the commercial underpinnings to British Paganism, this does not mean that I think this situation is an ideal, or even good state of affairs. There are a great many alternative ways of organising ourselves that would make our core activities much less vulnerable to shifts in the wider economy. Equally, in saying this, I do not mean to criticise anybody’s individual way of making a livingas I’ve said, I have not met anybody on the British scene who I would describe as a profiteer, exploiting their spirituality to collect a tidy sum. Instead, what I’ve experienced is lots of passionate, enthusiastic people, aspiring to earn a wage in a fulfilling way. But it is interesting that the social structure that developed organically around our Movement was in the first instance a capitalist one. Even our voluntary arrangements, as I have argued, have been directly affected by adverse market conditions. This just goes to show that the British Pagan Movement is not exempt from the prevailing capitalist logics that structure British society in general. And these same logics are now placing the very longevity of our community in question.

To lay out the issues before us plainly, there are two things with which the market once supplied the Pagan Movement in Britain. Namely, a means for “active engagers” to find out about the Movement and become initiates within it; a shop-front, in other wordsand sufficiently generous and un-taxing sources of income to allow for initiates to pursue the mysteries in their spare time. The market in Britain no-longer provides us with these things, and so our community is withering on the vine. Although there are, perhaps, more “active engagers” than ever, we are cut off from them. The question that now lies before us is this: How can we better connect with this large pool of active engagers, of all ages, and how can we better sustain the practice of the mysteries, now that people’s time and energy is so short?

I cannot provide a comprehensive programme of solutions here, though I will venture some suggestions in future articles. But there are some key observations I wish to make, by way of concluding remarks:

  • It is clear that our movement’s focus around long-term, expensive, extra-curricular pedagogy – that is, upon initiation pursued in one’s spare time, with one’s spare incomeis becoming harder to sustain. In these trying times, active engagers need healing and well-being as much as they need initiations. Now is the time for us to reflect more than ever upon our responsibilities as magicians, rather than our rights as religionists. We must care for the Earth and its peoples.
  • This does not mean we should abandon our drive to initiate more people into the mysteries; but it means we should re-think how and why we do this. If we are serious about broadening the reach of what we do, we need to find ways of making it accessible and feasible for people to learn about it.
  • This, if anything, shows us one thingBritish Paganism is being killed by capitalism. Although I have cast it in quite stark, commercial terms, at the heart of the Pagan community sits a utopian vision of free-association: a Bookchinite imagined village, in which individuals are free to interact with one another regarding matters of mutual interest, and to exchange goods and services in a similar manner. There are many ways in which this vision has been put into practice; particularly in the voluntaristic dimensions to the Pagan experience. I have lived and breathed this sort of lifestyle at Pagan camps I have attended. But it has become increasingly hard to sustain in the cut-throat landscape of post-recession Britain. If we’re serious about wanting to build a village-like community in contemporary Paganism here, we’ll need to destroy capitalism in order to do it.

Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.

Putting Out

By Rhyd Wildermuth

salvation army girls
At the Bar (Salvation Army Girls) by Jeanne Mammen, 1926. ‘Salvation Army Girls’ were women who sold sex exclusively to other women in Germany during the Wiemar period.

Early in the summer of 2009, I whiled a fantastic summer with a lover in a beautiful apartment in Kreuzberg, Berlin.

In the mornings (or what passes for morning in a city where Capitalism has not fully conquered the human day), we’d stumble down a short flight of steps into a scene of wonder–into a stone courtyard, out through the heavy wooden gate on the cobbled sidewalk, grapevines and trees and street art soaking my senses in luxurious intensity.

From there, one could walk to the tree-lined Canal, the enchanting and very crowded outdoor Turkish Market, along a bustling street filled with food-shops and stores.  Or cross a bridge to one of the nearby 15 gay bars (a fraction of the full number in that city), or descend underground to the U-bahn and travel briefly to anywhere else in that gorgeous, intoxicating city.

He was there to do research for his master’s thesis on queer occult societies during the Weimar Republic, a period of unrivaled gay and Pagan culture in the period just before the Nazis rose to power.  Set powerfully into the collective memory by the writings of Christopher Isherwood and the musical Caberet, Weimar Berlin was a fascinating mix of radicalism and sexual experimentation in the midsts of a breakdown of Capitalist power.  People were poor but sexy, and Berlin became both a pilgrimage site for queers in the Western world as well as a ‘degenerate’ symbol of all that was wrong with the world for the rising Nazi party.

Berlin had a church attendance rate of 1%, hosted occult events nightly, and the literature and art from that time speaks to an almost utopic exploration of the human soul.  Oh, and it was also full of prostitutes, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

I’ve never made much money, never much more than minimum wage.  Thing is, Berlin is cheap, or was when we first stayed there.  One of the ways to keep your costs down when traveling is to find an apartment to sublet. Costs of food go down significantly when you’ve access to a kitchen, and generally the cost of renting someone else’s home is usually much lower than a nightly hotel.

To do this, I searched a few free listing sites on the internet.  There was no AirBnB or other ‘services’ yet, but sites like Craiglist.org existed where people could list for free.  Each time I stayed in Berlin, the cost of renting an entire apartment (including the aforementioned one) was a little less than 100 euro (110 us dollars at the time) per week.  As a matter of fact, in each instance, I rented someone else’s home for the exact cost that they incurred for rent on their place.

One time we asked the person from whom we rented why they weren’t charging us more. Their answer was quite shocking, and they sounded awfully offended.  They’d said: “I’m not trying to make a profit here! What sort of person would do that?

While I’m near 40 years old now, this is a good time to tell you that I’m not engaging in nostalgia for an economy that existed several decades ago.  This was only 5 years ago.

Kapital Über Alles

Jeanne Mammen, Boot-Whores
Jeanne Mammen, Boot-Whores

Now, however, things have changed there, as they have also changed here, on account of a shift of social relations described by cheerleaders of Capitalism as “The Sharing Economy.”

On the face of it, AirBnB, a company which offers to set up people looking for sublets with hosts for a fee, appears to have made it ‘easier’ to find lodging at a cheaper rate than hotels.  However, it has actually all but displaced the older model which enabled someone poor like myself to stay in a foreign city.

The advent of businesses such as AirBnB, Uber, Lyft, Taskrabbit, and many other ‘services’ are all part of this brave new economic world, where people can sell or rent their services to strangers at a piece-rate in return for money.  The enthusiasm for these Corporations and their ‘apps’ is intense, soaked in the usual optimism any new Capitalist venture generates through the Capitalist media.

It may seem almost a sort of liberation.  If you own a car, you now have the option to make money from it.  If you’re in need of extra cash, you can turn extra hours into waged-labor by running errands through Taskrabbit or Postmates.  And on the off-chance you’ve got an empty room in your home, have an extra home, or have the option to stay elsewhere, you can rent out your place to others for more money than you pay in mortgage or rent.  It’s a brave new world, full of opportunities to make money at every turn, the possibility of liberation from the drudgery of the old ways breathing down your neck before us.

Except, it’s not new. And it’s not liberating. 

To understand this matter, we need first to deconstruct and discard the ridiculous description of this activity as “the Sharing Economy.”

Let’s take the first part, ‘Sharing.’  What precisely is being ‘shared’ when a driver signs up with a company like Uber?  Uber’s not doing any sharing–in fact, Uber provides nothing to a driver except for access to their application system which provides drivers with customers. According to Uber’s VP of operations:

Uber currently keeps 20% of each trip as a lead gen cost. This percentage is common in the industry and commonly referred to as a farm out fee. There are no monthly fees to be a driver on Uber, outside of a minimal data charge for the iPhone. [emphasis mine]

Does ‘farm out’ sound familiar at all?

If you remember anything about the early history of Capitalism, you may be familiar with ‘Putting Out,’ the system by which merchants distributed raw materials to individuals in homes to assemble products (textiles, pins, matches, etc.).  ‘Farming out’ is a similar process, a loaning-out of access to resources in return for a high percentage of profits or income.

Uber, AirBnB, and all the other players in The Sharing Economy are not actually sharing at all, they’re ‘putting out’ access to customers.

Likewise, though, those who are using these services to make money from their homes or cars are not ‘sharing’ either, unless sharing no longer means what we were taught it meant in kindergarten.  I was told it meant letting someone use something you weren’t using, and I don’t remember a monetary exchange.

Let’s be clear.  Charging money to allow someone to use something of yours is called renting.

The Means of (Re)Production

Image liberated from an awful conservative website. This guy will be happily here, I think.
Image liberated from an awful conservative website. This guy will be happier here, I think.

When I first moved to Seattle, I was mostly homeless.  23, gay, new to a city, with only two friends to rely upon who lived in a suburb.  To find a place, I needed money, and to find money, I needed a job, and all the jobs were in the city, not the suburb.

I slept ‘rough’ many nights in those first few months.  Sometimes on a stranger’s couch, sometimes in an alley, often in a park, once in a while in a friend’s car. More often than not, though, I’d find myself trading sex for a place to sleep, not something I’ve ever admitted in public ’till now.

I’m hardly ashamed.  I found myself in some fantastic condos with great views, waking in the morning occasionally even to breakfast and once to a marriage proposal.  It was a way to survive, most of the men were polite, and it was usually consensual except for the whole “you have a roof, I don’t” bit.

It’s called ‘sex-work.’  And it’s a common means of survival for the poor, particularly when they have no access to the things you require to survive.

“Things you require to survive,” by the way, is called the Means of Reproduction in Marxist theory.  This includes food, housing, and leisure–the stuff that keeps you alive.

The Means of Production is slightly different–it’s access to the ability to create things others find socially useful, like cooking, art, coding…pretty much anything that we call ‘work.’  In Capitalist countries, most people don’t have the Means of Production and have to rely on the rich for ways to do things others will want to trade for.

The one thing a human always has, by the way, is their body.  Though not all sex-workers do so from extreme poverty (in fact, some of the greatest, most creative and powerful folks I know are sex-workers), the body is the one thing we can always fall back upon when we have nothing else.

In fact, that’s what all waged-work is–our bodies being used in exchange for money.  The sex-worker is no different from the tech worker, except one’s a lot more likely to be beaten, raped, or vilified than the other, and, also, one’s more likely to be a woman.

But, oh!  We were talking about The Sharing Economy, which we’re now calling The Renting Economy.

My Means of Production as a homeless person happened also to be my Means of Reproduction, as sex is a social relationship and part of the ways in which we create meaning in our lives.  In the best scenarios, sex is a freely-given exchange between two or more people; in patriarchal marriages, or in rape, or in situations of economic disparity, that exchange is not freely-given.

But this is the same with that category of social-relations called labor, too.   I only work for someone richer than myself because they have money and I do not–while I have some choice in who I work for (just as I had some choice in who I let fuck me when I was homeless), it’s difficult to say that I was fully able to exercise my free will.  We who have no wealth must work to survive in a Capitalist society because the laws ensure we have no other choice.

We are always trading our Means of Reproduction (again, the very essence of our life) for access to the Means of Production.  We sell our body (whether that be our mental faculties, our social skills, our muscles, or our genitals) in exchange for money we use to purchase what will give us the life we can get, to feed our ‘Reproduction.’

Pimp My Life

19ukhomeWhen I traded sex for a place to stay for the night, there was no one else directly mediating that exchange.  Guy takes a homeless guy back to his place, homeless guy gets a place to sleep, housed guy gets sex with someone younger than him, and that’s the end of the transaction.

But…what if there were some enterprising person eager to get in on this social exchange?  Say, some agent who helped make such connections in return for money from the ‘buyer’ or oral sex from the seller?

Such folks exist, of course.

A pimp or madam offer both a steady stream of clients to a sex-worker as well as some semblance of security.  The better ones keep the prostitutes they manage safe from abusive buyers, provide safer places for the sex to occur, and even screen customers beforehand.  They may even help those under their employ get to the hospital or pay for contraception or treatment for sexually transmitted infections (that is, ‘work injuries.’)  Basically, benefits.

Much, much more common, however, are the abuses.  A pimp or madam wields great power over their sex-workers, and the litany of horrors people endure must be remembered.  One of the most common is stolen wages–the person acting as the intermediary demands a cut of income from the sex-work, despite not performing any of the work themselves, justifying this extortion through their ‘services’ of providing protection and a steady stream of clients.

Worst of all, the sex-worker cannot easily end their relationship with the pimp or madam out of fear of violence, poverty, and losing access to customers (that is, their Means of Production).

There was no pimp to arrange these meetings between myself and the men I slept with, though I’ve had plenty such pimps in my life.  They’re called employers.

Aside

I realize, for many, my comparison between Capitalist employment and sex-work may be upsetting.  For some, sex-work is always exploitative, while waged-labor is seen (particularly by those who are not convinced Capitalism is all that bad) as more respectable and free-willed. 

To those of this opinion, I’ll admit–it’s a lot easier to talk of my time working in restaurants than it is my time trading sex. And let’s be awfully honest–sex work is not highly paid.  But favoring one sort of work over another is why a CEO is paid millions while an immigrant janitor’s paid pennies.

And to those worried I’m ignoring my male privilege, I’ll admit–I’m pretty strong and a little scary looking–my experiences were certainly less dangerous than many of my trans and non-male friends who’ve engaged (and currently engage) in sex-work face. 

That said, we should insist that sex-work is work, just as any other work is work.  And work when you have no choice is exploitative.  Either all work should be legal, or all work should be illegal (I vote for the latter).

There’s an App For That

rhyd 2001
Me, streetpunk

So, hey…let’s return to that Sharing Economy thing, huh?

I guess you could kinda say that I was ‘sharing’ my body with those men.  On the better nights, with the more attractive and fascinating and kind men, it did kinda feel like sharing, except, well–no.  I was renting myself to them.

Again, I was turning my Means of Reproduction into something I could trade so I could get what I needed, which is the deal we all make with the Capitalists.

This Sharing Economy shit is a really pretty name we put on people renting out their life in exchange for money, turning their cars and homes into the Means of Production.  And we must be really clear about what AirBnB, Uber, and all these companies really are.

They’re pimps.

They’re extracting money from social transactions we make with each other.

When you need a ride from a friend, you offer to pay them gas money.  Now, you pay Uber who pays the driver less than what you paid, while the driver bears all the responsibility (insurance, car payments, gas, repairs).

When you’re going to be gone from your home for a few weeks, you might ask a friend to house-sit or even offer to let a stranger stay if they pay your rent while you’re gone.  Now, AirBnb gets to make money off of you doing so.

What gushing white tech CEO’s and their slobbering fan-boys declare is a ‘new economy’ is really just another way to extract money from the most basic of human activities, a new Enclosure of the social Commons.

Capitalism in Crisis

There’s that quote about remembering history, that I won’t repeat here, ’cause it’s lost its meaning.

Better to say this: certain forms repeat throughout history, and recognizing when they recur is a great way of learning to fight them.  The ‘open-plan office’ that many tech-workers rightfully complain about bears a strong resemblance to the factory floor of the 19th century, and though working for Google is nothing like working in a sweat-shop, noticing the similarities helps remind us when the powerful are relying on something that’s worked for them in the past.

Our current society is not really like Wiemar Berlin just before the Nazi’s rose to power, mostly because what passes for art and culture and sexual experimentation is rather mundane and banal compared to what they came up with.  Nor is using Uber or renting out your apartment with AirBnB quite like the putting-out industry of 1700’s England.  And selling your sex is not the same as using TaskRabbit.

But the forms repeat.  In Berlin, the weakness of Capitalism compelled people to rent their bodies for money.  In early 1700’s England, greedy people ‘put-out’ resources to have the poor make money for them.  And really awful people have always tried to get a piece of us, whether it be our sex or any of the other social relations we create.

Capitalism is in another crisis.  It does this, repeatedly, and in those moments where the rich aren’t certain they’ll be able to hold onto their wealth, they turn all their attention towards finding new ways of extracting our Means of Reproduction and turning it into their profit.

You’re being pimped.

What are you gonna do about it?


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is a nomadic autonomous Marxist witch-bard, devotee of the Raven King, the Lady of the Flames, the Crown of the North, the Harrower, several sea witches and quite a few mountain giants.  He’s also the co-founder of Gods&Radicals. Find his work on Paganarch and support his forest-edged revolution here.


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